By Donna Wichelman
You may have heard of or have played the Rio Grand Game, Carcassonne, a Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year) in 2001. Our family owns the game and has played it often. In Carcassonne, players develop Medieval towns and the land around them, adding roads, fields, and cloisters around the larger fortified town of Carcassonne. They also position thieves, farmers, knights, and monks to control and score points.
While the game can keep you occupied with fun for hours, did you know that Carcassonne is an actual place in southern France about eighty kilometers (fifty miles) east of Toulouse? Indeed, Carcassonne is considered an outstanding example of a fortified Medieval city and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Known as the largest city in Europe with its walls still intact, Carcassonne’s massive defenses encircle the enormous Château Comtal (Count’s Castle), streets and buildings, and an impressive Gothic cathedral.
Carcassonne has existed as a fortified hill town called Carsac—a Celtic name—since the sixth century B.C. on a trade route between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. The Romans recognized its strategic position around 100 B.C. and fortified the town even further, establishing it as an outpost or colony.
The lower defensive wall of Carcassonne was built during Gallo-Roman times. But by 462 A.D., Rome ceded Carcassonne to the Visigoth king Theodoric II. Theodoric added more fortifications and began the forerunner to the cathedral that now stands as the Basilica Saint Nazaire. Over the following centuries, several groups conquered and ruled Carcassonne, including the Franks, the Muslims, and the Berbers. I cannot help but compare the rivalry of the game my family plays to the real-life family factions and violent clashes in medieval history.
In 1067, Raimond-Bernard Trencavel, viscount of Albi and Nimes, became the landholder. The succeeding generations allied at different times with the counts of Barcelona and Toulouse and built the Château Comtal (Count’s Castle) and the Basilica of Saints Nazarius and Celsus. Pope Urban II blessed the foundation stones of the basilica in 1096.
Then, in the eleventh century, Carcassonne became front and center in a doctrinal dispute between the Catholic Church and the heretical Christian sect called the Cathars, who made the southern France region of Languedoc their home. The differences between the Catholic Church and the Cathars would lead to the Albigenesian Crusades two centuries later.
The Cathars were dualists. Their gnostic beliefs stated that two opposing deities existed—one benevolent and one malevolent. They considered the good deity to be the god of the New Testament and the creator of the spiritual world. The evil deity, the god of the Old Testament, created the physical world and was called Rex Mundi (‘King of the World’) or Satan. The cosmic battle between these two deities explained the existence of good and evil.
Cathars believed that since the physical body was sinful, they had to free themselves of it, renouncing the temporal world and denying themselves physical pleasures. Purifying the body could only be achieved by fasting, purging, and abstaining from sexual intercourse—that only separation from the world would prevent human spirits from being condemned to an eternity of reincarnated earthly bodies surrounded by sin.
According to Cathar doctrine, Jesus was not God but a fallen angel who took on human form as an illusion. He could not have atoned for sin in a resurrected body, because he didn’t have a physical body to resurrect. Nor could Jesus have died on the cross because such a torture device in the physical world was evil.
The Catholic Church considered Cathar doctrine antithetical to theirs. The Church held there was only one omnipotent, all-sovereign God, who created both physical and spiritual realms. Satan was not a god but a fallen angel who tempted humans to sin. The only way one’s sins could be erased was if God, through Jesus Christ the Messiah, having made atonement on the cross, paid the price for our sins. His physical body had resurrected from the grave, and those who believed in him could know for certain that we would also live in eternity in the presence of God.
For nearly two centuries, the Catholic Church had tried to peaceably convert the Cathars by denouncing their heretical theology. While Raymond Roger de Trencavel was not a Cathar, he tolerated them. But Pope Innocent III was not so generous.
In August 1209, Abbot Arnaud Amalric led the crusade on the order of Pope Innocent III to forcibly make citizens surrender. Viscount Raymond-Roger de Trencavel was imprisoned and tried to negotiate his release. But three months later, he died under mysterious circumstances. The people of Carcassonne were allowed to leave, but they could take nothing with them. Simon de Monfort, a mighty military leader in the crusade, was appointed the new viscount and later added more fortifications. The crusades against the Cathars continued over the next century and a half.
Trencavel’s son hoped to reacquire Carcassonne in 1240, but the city came under the rule of France in 1247, becoming a border town between France and Aragon. In the seventeenth century, the Treaty of the Pyrenees brought the border province of Roussillon under French rule, and Carcassonne’s military significance waned. Its fortifications were abandoned, and the city became an economic center for the woolen industry.
During Napolean Bonaparte’s time, Carcassonne fell into disrepair. But in 1849, the writer Prosper Mérimée led a campaign to preserve the fortress as a historical monument, and in 1853, the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, already in the process of restoring the Basilica of Saints Nazarius and Celsus, was commissioned to renovate the city. Work continued throughout the following years, and upon Viollet-el-Duc’s death in 1879, his pupil Paul Boeswillwald continued the restoration.
Finally in 1997, UNESCO added Carcassonne to its list of World Heritage sites because of its “exceptional preservation and restoration.” Today, Carcassonne thrives on tourism and the winemaking industry for its economic success instead of the clashes and wealth of kings and kingdoms. Yet, it will always be for me that place made up of fantasies and historical fiction in the city name of a popular game called Carcassonne.
Donna worked as a communications professional before turning to full-time writing. Her short stories, essays, and articles have appeared in various inspirational publications, and she has two indie-published Christian contemporary suspense novels in her Waldensian Series, Light Out of Darkness and Undaunted Valor.